Elon Musk’s Neuralink is exciting and terrifying to people in China
The brain-machine interface reminds netizens of The Three-Body Problem and Communist Party thought control
Two years after the world learned about Elon Musk’s venture into merging computers with human brains, the entrepreneur finally showed off what his company Neuralink has been working on. In China, where most brain-machine interface companies focus on non-invasive systems (those that don’t open up your skull), netizens say they’re both excited and scared.
Neuralink aims to allow people to control machines, such as smartphones and computers, with only their thoughts. It works by drilling holes in the skull to implant ultra thin “threads” that can detect brain activities. Musk said the company has successfully enabled a monkey to control a computer with its brain, and he hopes to start testing it on humans next year.
The company’s head surgeon, Matthew McDougall, said that it’s only intended for “patients with serious unmet medical diseases.” The technology targets people with paralysis due to spinal cord injury. But it appears that Elon Musk’s imagination doesn’t stop there. He said that the goal is to “achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence” so humans won’t be “left behind” by AI.
“I feel like it’s a little scary… to be accurate, very scary,” said Luo Yonghao, founder of struggling smartphone startup Smartisan, in a Weibo post. “But I’m very much looking forward to the future.”
Luo’s view is shared among many other social media users who appeared not entirely sure what to make of the new technology.
“This is so cool, but it’s terrifying when you think about it,” said one WeChat user commenting on an article about Neuralink.
The company’s ambitions appear to extend beyond the control of external objects. Neuralink president Max Hodak mused that the company’s tech might eventually allow people to digitally exchange thoughts. For Chinese netizens, this brought to mind the renowned Chinese science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem, in which the Earth’s Trisolaran alien invaders are incapable of internal monologue.
“In the future, we all communicate like people in the Three-Body world, where two people know what the other is thinking when they stand together,” one Weibo user said. “That is a type of ‘progress.’”
Many people appear to be hesitant about the idea of having anything implanted in their skulls. In a Weibo poll started by tech media iFanr that asked whether people are willing to have chips implanted in their bodies, 66% of the more than 3,000 participants voted no. But people are still impressed by Neuralink’s exploration of the possibilities.
“Over there, Musk is busy changing the world, while here people are racking their brains to fight over users’ time,” someone commented on WeChat.
Then there were the comments imagining how such technology might fit into the plans of the Communist Party, known for its propaganda and attempts at thought control.
“(Use it to) import core socialist values,” one Weibo user said in a comment with more than 300 likes.
Alas, that remains just a dream for now. The technology can’t actually implant thoughts into people’s brains. It is being designed to write signals to the brain, though, which might one day be used to improve or restore senses such as vision or touch, according to company scientist Philip Sabes.
Maybe someday it will get closer to implanting thoughts, though. Hodak said the tech might one day allow people who have had the surgery to download a new language into their brain.
Brain-computer interface companies in China mostly develop non-invasive systems that detect brain signals from outside your skull, which is safer and easier but get weaker signals. One Chinese company that made headlines this year is BrainCo, which makes a headband that can supposedly tell if someone is focused based on brainwaves. BrainCo introduced the product into primary schools, but pictures of students wearing the headbands in classrooms drew criticism on social media.